What it is about sand dunes that make them so fascinating? Is it the ever shifting wind sculpted peaks and valleys, the rarity of this phenomenon, or the fact that they give us grown ups a chance to play in a sand box of epic proportions? Whatever it is, we’re hooked.
We’ve visited five different sand dunes across the country – Sleeping Bear Dunes in Michigan, The Oregon Sand Dunes on the coast, Kelso Sand Dunes in the Mojave National Preserve, White Sands National Monument in New Mexico (twice), and now the Great Sand Dunes National Park here in Colorado. I couldn’t possibly claim that I have a favorite, as they are all amazing places to visit, but I can confidently say that the Great Sand Dunes has the most unique surrounding landscape. First there’s the rugged Sangre De Cristo Mountains rising above the dunes to the east.
Then there’s the creek that runs along the bottom of the dunes, creating a natural barrier between the giant piles of sand and the sweeping grasslands leading up to the mountains.
Medano Creek is a seasonal stream whose mountain fed waters reach their peak sometime around late May or early June. We didn’t expect to see any water at the this time of year, and sure enough the creek near the main dune parking area was completely dry. But farther up the river near the Sand Pit and Castle Creek picnic area, we discovered a shallow flowing stream. We took off our shoes and socks and walked down the river for a few miles, marveling at the fascinating sand patterns in the creek bed.
Of course, the very best part of the Great Sand Dunes are the dunes themselves. Encompassing an area of 30 square miles, and rising up to 750 feet tall, these dunes are the tallest in North America.
The Great Sand Dunes also win the prize for the most difficult to climb. The dunes here are soft – very, very soft – which makes hiking around them challenging to say the least. They’re also really hot. Even on an average summer or early fall day when the temperature is hovering around 80 degrees, the sand can reach up to 130 foot burning degrees! The final part of the dune difficulty trifecta is the elevation. We’re up above 8,000 feet here making a dune hike a workout for both the legs and the lungs.
All that was not going to stop us from climbing the dunes though. We arrived at the Great Sand Dunes on Sunday around mid-day, secured ourselves a spot in the lovely Pinyon Flat Campground adjacent to the dunes (more on the campground in the next post), and promptly set off to hike the dunes. The tallest dune in the park is Star Dune. At an elevation of 755 feet, hiking to the top is a grueling 6-mile round trip climb. The second tallest dune is High Dune at an elevation of 700 feet. This dune is a bit closer to the main parking area which means it only takes 3 miles of hiking up the soft sand to reach it. Of course, all these distances are merely an estimate since there is no set trail up the ever shifting sand. We decided to tackle the high dune first, figuring if we still had some energy left we could continue on to Star Dune.
As soon as we started to climb I knew it was going to be a challenge. Unlike the dunes at White Sands, the soft sand here provides no stable surface on which to walk, and with every step you sink deep into the loose granules. The steeper the dune, the more difficult it got. At one point it felt like we were sliding down two steps for every one step up.
The majority of people out on the dunes didn’t make it much farther than the first uphill section. But we could see a few determined folks up higher in the dunes and decided to follow their example of walking along the sand ridges to get to the top.
It was tough going and we stopped to rest a LOT. I think this might be the hardest 1.5 mile uphill I’ve ever climbed.
We persevered though, and made it to the top well under the 2 hour average time that the park service claims it will take. The 360 degree view was incredible.
After all that there was no way we were continuing on to Star Dune. Considering the tiny amount of foot prints leading in that direction, we were not the only one’s to make this decision. Instead we enjoyed a few minutes of rest and a snack at the top before heading back down. Needless to say, the way down was much easier. We slide, ran and tumbled down the dunes in a fraction of the time it took us to climb up.
Even though we didn’t make it to the top of the highest sand dune in North America, we did make it to the top of the second highest, which is still something to be proud of. And it means we can go back to the visitor center to get the sticker that says “I climbed High Dune.” We’ll be here at the dunes for the rest of the week, so get ready for more sand filled posts coming your way.